In the absence of possibilities for purification through destruction or physical removal, and to put an end to the situation of weak purification in which the manifestation of nuclear waste is only curtailed by strict monitoring and regulation, NIRAS/ONDRAF follows the international consensus in choosing geological disposal—the technical incarnation of the imagination of “forgotten-by-not-showing-up”—as the reference solution and end point of the Belgian HLW management program. Research on geological disposal of HLW started early in Belgium. As far back as 1974, detailed investigations started concentrating on the so-called Boom clay layer—a geological layer with promising characteristics, conveniently located at a depth of around 220 m under the site of the Belgian nuclear research center (SCK•CEN) in Mol. In 1980, the construction of an underground research laboratory (named HADES) in the Boom clay layer commenced, the first of its kind worldwide. Although geological disposal in Boom clay has been the reference scenario from the start of Belgian HLW management research and dedicated research has steadily continued, up until today, no formal political decision has been taken. The status at the time of writing this paper (September 2020) is that the Belgian nuclear waste management organization NIRAS/ONDRAF has submitted (on 15 April 2020) a strategic waste management plan for public consultationFootnote 9 expressing a preference for geological disposal (at an as yet unspecified location in Belgium) to a round of public consultations, after which a government decision is expected to follow.
Following our Foucauldian line of questioning, embodied in the adaptation of Dorrestijn’s second figure of technological mediation, in this section, we analyze how the technological imagination of geological disposal gives rise to a particular regime of truth, defined by Foucault (2012, p. 94) to “designate the set of processes and institutions by which, under certain conditions and with certain effects, individuals are bound and obliged to make well-defined truth-acts.” Of course, it is not enough that political decision-makers adhere to a certain technological imaginary for it to become true. The fact that Foucault, when studying phenomena such as madness, criminality, or sexuality, always analyzes power and knowledge in its complex interdependencies does not imply that knowledge should be seen as merely instrumental to the exercise of power. The truth effects of knowledge always potentially exceed what is strictly needed for the exercise of power, hence the need for a constant renegotiation between these two factors. Applied to our topic, we therefore ask ourselves how “the truth” about geological disposal (i.e., knowledge about its functioning in the distant future) is able to mediate power effects (i.e., contributes to its implementation in reality), and how a subject capable of operationalizing this truth is constructed as a corollary.
For an answer to this Foucauldian question, we need to look beyond Foucault, however. Throughout his oeuvre, Foucault is concerned with investigating power-knowledge complexes in the broad context of “subjectivation”—i.e., processes by which individuals are constituted (e.g., by disciplinary power) or constitute themselves (e.g., by techniques of the self) as subjects. As a consequence, Foucault’s focus on the knowledge side of the power-knowledge complex is exclusively on the human sciences (e.g., criminology, psychology, psychiatry), while his focus on the power side is on rules, methods, or techniques for steering one’s own conduct or the conduct of others. Foucault himself never analyzes “hard” or applied sciences and their relation to technological artifacts or programs. As a consequence, we need to turn our attention to the literature on techno-scientific mediation for further guidance. Here, we can fruitfully draw on the work of Bensaude Vincent and Loeve (2018). According to these authors, what sets apart techno-scientific mediation from purely scientific mediation is the fact that the former form of mediation is not so much concerned with representing the world but rather with intervening in it. Techno-scientific research is “mainly oriented toward design; and as research in a design mode, technoscience is most adequately characterized as an exploration of nature’s capacities, whereby nature is reconfigured as a field of possibilities” (Bensaude Vincent & Loeve, 2018, p. 176). Its priority is not to discover the laws of nature (i.e., the fundamental constraints that condition the behavior of objects in nature), but rather the “potentialization of nature” (i.e., the possible behavior of natural objects within the limits given by the laws of nature).
Referring back to our case, the fundamental design perspective underlying geological disposal is to have any release from the artificial barriers of the waste packaging and the underground installation be delayed and further diluted by the selected geological host formation for a sufficiently long time period to let radioactive decay occur naturally (this process can take thousands to even millions of years for some radio-isotopes) (IAEA, 2018). The international nuclear expert community explicitly frames geological disposal as a “permanent and final solution” (OECD-NEA, 1995, 2007) whose safety, after closure of the facility, does not depend on the presence of man (ICRP, 2013). Geological sciences (hydrogeology, geochemistry, seismology, etc.) are enlisted to deal with the kind of cosmic/geological time dimensions implied by the reliance on geological disposal. They enable the techno-scientific community involved in furthering the cause of geological disposal to operationalize the truth about geological disposal by simply letting the technical processes occurring underground “speak for themselves” in an act of demonstration (Sundqvist & Elam, 2010a, b), while eliminating the need for any speculations regarding future human interactions with the technology (i.e., the temptation to ask questions such as “How are future generations likely to perceive and interact with a geological disposal facility?”). The techno-scientific subject “projects” itself, so to speak, into this non-symbolic, purely operative space of naturally occurring processes. This is done, for instance, by relying on natural analogues (i.e., showing how similar geological layers have evolved over time under the influence of events such as ice ages or flooding) or experiments on more limited timescales combined with mathematical modelling. Based on mathematical equations that simulate the dispersion of radioisotopes in the geological layers, it is graphically possible to estimate the maximum exposure of people and the environment to radiation over periods of hundreds of thousands of years.
The specific form of subjectivity mediated by geological disposal is, however, paradoxical: the natural and material processes active deep underground can never really “speak for themselves” as, inevitably, the scientific community must engage in a hermeneutical effort to deliberate on the validity of their models. After all, safety cases for geological disposal based on modelling rely on various assumptions and scenarios. Trust in the results of the models used therefore boils down to trust in the scientific community developing and using these models (Silvast et al., 2020): have the best models available really been used? And can the necessary simplifications that always form the basis of mathematical models be justified considering the real complexity of the geological reference concept? Observations of this kind have, for instance, led the members of the International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP, 1997) to conclude that long-term risk calculations are fundamentally unreliable for predictive purposes (p. 11) and that the role of such estimations is to provide an indication or illustration rather than a prediction of the robustness of the disposal system (p. 29).
For a better understanding of this techno-scientific mediation, it is also crucial to note that even though geological disposal is at heart a geo-engineering project, the specific subjectivity mediated by its design is at odds with the subjectivity mediated in standard engineering practices. The aim of constructing a mathematical model representing the functioning of a geological disposal over thousands or even millions of years is to show that such technology is possible. Such a form of proof manifests a capacity and opens up a possible future, but from a strictly engineering point of view, the status of this type of knowledge amounts (at best) to a proof of concept. As pointed out by Davis (2019), even though the use of models is part and parcel of standard engineering education and practices, follow-up and monitoring of technologies up to the end of their lifetime once they become embedded in society is an equally important constituent part of engineering practices. Davis’ observation serves to underscore the crucial difference between geological disposal and more ordinary technologies such as bridges, cars, or microwave ovens: whereas any other technology can be recalled in the event that it does not function properly (there are technicians who have the necessary knowledge to repair or possibly replace the malfunctioning technological artifact), this is excluded by design in the case of a geological repository. Deep geological layers function as the ultimate safety barriers, and future generations are not allowed to meddle with these layers for whatever reason. In this sense, a geological repository is an absolute technology—absolute, because it can no longer be questioned from a specific (historical, geographical, cultural) context. The question whether it functions properly, or what prompted us (the post-war generations) to use this technology, or the technology that created the wastes in the first place (i.e., nuclear power), can simply no longer be asked. In the case of geological disposal, this dialogue with future generations is simply precluded, even at the imaginary level. Hence, the technological mediation at work in geological disposal subjectivates current publics by making them witness the “proof of concept,” while future generations will be confronted with “absolute technology.” Understanding this form of mediation is only possible by modifying Dorrestijn’s second figure of technological mediation into “technology as imagination” and extending it to include techno-scientific mediation.